They start their days just like everyone else.
Dropping kids off at school, making the coffee, packing a lunch. It’s all pretty standard until they get ready to hit the road.
Instead of buckling in a seatbelt and turning up the radio, a handful of Huntsville residents are strapping on a helmet, donning more comfortable shoes and taking off on a bike for their morning commute.
“When I was in grade school, there really weren’t any other choices. You had your bike and off you went,” Sam Houston State business professor Darren Grant said. “I found early on that I really enjoyed the freedom and being outside.”
Grant has been commuting primarily by bike since the first grade and uses it as an opportunity to escape the confines of a car while getting in some daily exercise.
“I’ve bicycle commuted for all but eight years of my life since I was 6 years old,” Grant said. “You get to see the world in a different way because you get to take it step-by-step.”
Living in the Forest Hills subdivision, Grant has a three- or five-mile commute to work at the university each day, depending on traffic. After being at it so long, he’s got it down to a science.
“When you’ve commuted by bicycle as long as I have, you learn to recognize how calm a person behind the wheel is,” Grant said. “When there’s a driver that looks to be hasty, and you can easily tell the drivers that have that type of style, then you know to give them a little extra distance. There’s a big difference between the commute going home and the commute going in. People are usually relaxed going in, but at 5 or 5:30, when they’re coming home, they’re usually a bit more agitated.”
By far the most immediate benefit of a bike commute is the physical aspect. Even a small ride each day provides the body with an exercise boost, burning calories and improving overall health while increasing energy levels.
“It’s helped me lose weight, which is really why I started it,” said Ron Gunnels, a partner at Gunnels Restroom Services. “I’m 42 years old and when you run out of breath just bending over, you start looking at your body and you know you have to change something.”
Gunnels, who also lives in the Forest Hills subdivision, started commuting to his job a little more than a year and a half ago and has seen big benefits in that short time frame.
“When I started out, I couldn’t even go around the circle in my street, but I just stayed on it. It becomes fun once you get used to it,” Gunnels said. “I went from a size 40 waist to a 32, I’ve lost about 45 pounds, my breathing is better and my overall health, energy, flexibility are too. I really think it’s going to help extend my life.
“When you start biking, it’s kind of contagious. You start watching what you eat and leading a healthier lifestyle. I’ll ride back and forth to work, ride around town, run errands, really anything that I can do on my bike, I’ll do it daily. Now, I’m averaging over 100 miles and about 10 hours of riding each week.”
“It’s really become part of my workout schedule,” Grant added. “Some days, I’ll run and other days I’ll bike. As I’m getting older and can’t run every day, the bike has really given me a way to maintain a consistent exercise schedule that I couldn’t sustain with running or other sports.”
While the physical benefits are universally celebrated, some choose to commute simply because it’s a convenient option that takes stress out of what could be a hectic morning commute.
“I really dislike driving,” Sam Houston State biology professor Carly Tribull said. “I moved here from New York, so I was really used to public transportation, or riding my bike. Plus, I didn’t want to pay for parking at the university, especially for such a short distance.”
Tribull had a far longer commute in New York, but now that she lives close to the university and just a few minutes from her office, the bike is her best option and also provides a good fitness boost.
“I went from what was a 40-minute commute each way in New York, to what’s essentially now a seven-minute bike commute, so I’m not seeing the same health benefits as I was, but it certainly adds something,” Tribull added. “I would walk, but there’s no continuous sidewalk and I would be forced to walk on the street. So in a way, it’s safer for me to be on a bike and I’m moving faster.
“I still go to the gym, because seven minutes of biking doesn’t really make up for caloric intake. But, on the days when I don’t have time to make it to the gym, which does happen occasionally, it doesn’t feel like I’ve been sitting down all day.”
Perhaps the most exciting feature of a bicycle commute is the connection that’s achieved to one’s surroundings. Beyond the confines of metal, glass and steel, bike commuters say they get to experience their town like never before.
“You really get a chance to see a side of your city that you just don’t experience when you’re driving,” Gunnels said. “Whether you’re going through the Avenues and looking at some of the funky yards, or riding around Sam Houston’s gravesite, or up the hills on Gospel Hill, you get to see everything from a different perspective.”
“Instead of being removed from your environment, like you are in a vehicle, you’re right there in it,” Grant added. “From a video game standpoint, it’s like the difference between playing Grand Theft Auto, where you’re part of this huge world, and playing Cruis’n USA, where all you can really do is drive.
“You learn a lot about the landscape and a lot about how people interact with the landscape. People’s lifestyles and their attitudes toward life can reflect the environment that they’re in. I miss the days when children could bike to school. I feel like the ability to do that gave me a level of independence and responsibility that served me well. Looking back, it was a bigger part of my growing up than I recognized at the time.”
A common theme through bike commuters is safety. Knowing that they are more susceptible to injury makes bike riders more aware of their surroundings, along with adding a level of social consciousness.
“You really have to keep your eyes open and stay in a heightened state of awareness,” Grant said. “It’s exactly the way you should be when you drive as well. You want to be able to keep track of everything that’s happening around you. I don’t think that anyone who bikes regularly takes safety casually. I always wear my helmet when I ride, I’d feel naked without it.”
“I think commuting this way is really good in the sense of public visibility, to show people that you don’t need to have a car. It’s a funny experience showing up in a grocery store parking lot and putting two bags on your bike and then riding away to the amazement of people,” Tribull said. “I think the supremacy of cars, especially in Huntsville, is a bit annoying. I think it would be a good idea if we could decrease the number of students that live in Huntsville who still drive to campus. If we could get more people on bikes, maybe we could end up having better public infrastructure, like bike lanes or sidewalks.”